Grant Shapps MP, Secretary of State for Defence (Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images)

Grant can’t

What has Grant Shapps done to deserve his reputation for competence?

Artillery Row

Last week it was reported that Grant Shapps, the new Defence Secretary, is considering whether to ramp up British support for Ukraine — including using the Navy to help defend commercial vessels from Russian attacks in the Black Sea. Shortly afterwards he was full of fighting talk at the Conservative Party Conference, where he criticised Putin, as well as announcing that a battalion of British soldiers would be heading to Kosovo to assist NATO’s peacekeeping mission. “I know our soldiers will do the United Kingdom proud,” he said.

Others weren’t quite as convinced. Whilst the social media platform X can never be taken as a complete measure of public opinion, replies underneath a video of Shapps’ speech showed a growing level of discontent at the UK’s military plans. “What happened to Parliament in Governing this country?” wrote one man, followed by comments such as “another step closer to WW3” and “Warmonger”. Recently I have found myself questioning whether Shapps should be in charge of defence at all.

Given that Shapps has been in frontline politics for so long, it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking he’s a “safe pair of hands”. He has even cultivated a bit of a teddy bear image. Whilst Suella Braverman is deemed “Cruella”, Shapps seems no more threatening or right wing than Richard Osman adjudicating a Pointless game. Last year Shapps took his Mr Nice Guy branding to new heights when he released an upbeat video of himself in a home with a naughty elf, who keeps secretly turning on the heating. In this magnum opus, Shapps offered tips to Brits trying to save money amidst the energy crisis.

The piece didn’t go down well, criticised for trivialising the concerns of cash-strapped voters. In retrospect I wonder if there was something even worse about it. It might have offered a warning about Shapps, whose harmless appearance has proved an excellent cover for consistent incompetence.

Shapps led the cavalry when it came to attacking driver rights

If you look at Rishi Sunak’s current political strategy — which involves rolling back Net Zero and the war on cars — you could say it is, more than anything, an indictment on decisions Shapps took over the years in Cabinet. Take the Prime Minister’s uncertainty over whether to scrap the HS2 route to Manchester. Anyone conducting a post-mortem of the perpetually-troubled line would be interested in what our new Defence Secretary, was doing between 2019 and 2022, when he was Transport Secretary. These years were critical for HS2. In 2020, then Prime Minister Boris Johnson gave his approval for the whole of it to go ahead. Why, then, does Sunak now feel compelled to U-turn? What’s gone wrong? Shouldn’t we be asking Shapps this?

Later, Shapps became Secretary of State for Energy Security and Net Zero (February to August 2023). Granted, it was a short time in such a role — but, still, it’s not exactly the type of thing one would want to put on their CV, given the amount of concern expensive green policies have caused. Sunak’s backtracking on Net Zero has been partly attributed to a recent rise in the polls for the Conservatives, as well his plans to reverse the war on cars.

This latter point brings us, yet again, to Shapps, who led the cavalry when it came to attacking driver rights. Notably, in 2020, Shapps was behind a “£2 billion package to create a new era for cycling and walking”. This made recommendations such as, “More side streets could be closed to through traffic, to create low-traffic neighbourhoods and reduce rat-running whilst maintaining access for vehicles”.

Shapps’ policies are exactly the ones that this government is now racing to get rid of, pledging to “restrain the most aggressively anti-driver traffic management measures”. It is offering new guidance on Low Traffic Neighbourhoods (LTNs) in its recently released Plan for Drivers publication. These priorities are about a million miles — or pounds — away from the former Transport Secretary’s. Whilst many anti-traffic schemes have been introduced by other parties (Green and Liberal Democrats, notably), Tories have ended up with huge culpability, too, thanks to the actions of Shapps.

More is coming to light over how £2 billion was spent on the “new era for cycling and walking”. Over the weekend, the Daily Mail ran a piece titled “Why are taxpayers funding charities that want to rid the road of cars?” It examined the astronomical amount of money that has been channelled into cycling and walking groups. Reporters found that between 2022 and 2023 combined, Sustrans (which describes itself as “the charity making it easier for everyone to walk, wheel and cycle”) received over £190 million from government agencies across Britain. Another similar charity, Living Streets, received £10.6 million (in the financial years of 2020 and 2021 combined), which was used to push for LTNs, amongst other endeavours. In other words, taxpayers have been funding groups that make it harder and more expensive for them to drive (never mind the fact that it’s not obvious why groups promoting something cheap or free — cycling and walking — need billions of pounds).

All the policies Sunak is U-turning on relate to Shapps, which should raise alarm bells as to the wreckage behind him. What use is it expanding his power on the global stage, when he has left domestic matters in such disarray?

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